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F Murray Abraham stars in this sour comedy about feuding writers
'The Mentor’ is a self-absorbed and fitfully entertaining satire on the arts world by German writer Daniel Kehlmann that – let’s be honest – probably wouldn’t be troubling the West End if it didn’t star an actual Oscar-winner in the shape of F Murray Abraham (the gong was for 1984's ‘Amadeus’, though he’s perhaps better known now for ’Homeland’). But it does, and it’s here, so we might as well make the most of it.
Abraham is genuinely excellent as cynical, elderly writer Benjamin Rubin, who wrote a brilliant play at the age of 25 and has been fossilised by it: unable to create anything better, but too successful to fade away, even if he’s essentially now just a stuck on repeat, drifting through life dispensing the same set of anecdotes and aphorisms. Both puffed up with his celebrity but also painfully aware of his essential failure, all he’s really interested in now is his own comfort. To that end he’s accepted a well paid gig with an arts organisation mentoring a promising young playwright – Daniel Weyman’s Martin – for a week.
At first the pleasure of Abraham's performance is simply in him being a dick to everyone, especially Erwin (Jonathan Cullen), the facility’s hapless administrator, whose admiration for Rubin is rapidly eroded by the spectacle of him on full, arrogant autopilot. But we see a more human side when Rudin develops a thing for Martin’s wife Gina (Naomi Frederick). In plot terms it's a pretty icky relationship – there’s more than a trace of old man’s wank fantasy to it – but Abraham makes us feel for the old bastard with little more than an arsenal of hungry, haunted looks. He never actually tells us he is desperately lonely – but he never needs to.
The rest of the cast are fine, but overwhelmingly the problem with Laurence Boswell’s UK premiere is the writing. I do wonder if something has been lost in Christopher Hampton's translation, but Kehlmann’s view of the arts world feels both insiderish and sour. Rubin is washed up and obnoxious; Martin talks of his art in rarefied tones but his critically acclaimed plays unpopular and he lives off his wife’s salary; Erwin pesters the others to look at pictures of his terrible paintings. Only Gina lives outside the bubble, pretending to like her husband’s plays, but her patience is wearing thin.
Kehlmann is doing something more complicated than just suggesting all creatives are essentially frauds, but it often doesn’t feel like that. Evidently Kehlmann is fond of his protagonist, but aside from Abraham's performance there’s little joy in this misanthropic, occasionally misogynist affair.